Wear out a defense, and enforce your will. That's what the no-huddle allows offenses to do. (Getty Images)
Yes, Nick Saban, this is how we want football to be, whether you like it or not. The perennially grumpy Alabama head coach and former NFL washout in Miami recently put the rest of the football world on notice (at least in his own head), by decrying offensive gameplans that go no-huddle with increasing frequency -- offenses that start without a stop. In this week's SEC teleconference, Saban told all these newfangled offenses to get the heck off his lawn.
"I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety ... "I think that's something that can be looked at. It's obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we're averaging 49.5 points a game. With people that do those kinds of things, more and more people are going to do it.
"I just think there's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?"
Well, Coach Saban, if we want "fairness" in football, we should give every other NCAA program your recruiting advantage. And you should probably have to pay your players. But, that's a different story. The story now, especially in the NFL, is how the pro game is adapting its offenses to run more plays at a quicker place with more efficiency. That trend took over the college game years ago, and there are precedents in the Sam Wyche/Boomer Esiason Cincinnati Bengals and the K-Gun Buffalo Bills who went to four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s, but the way the no-huddle concept is taking over the NFL now is very new.
According to Dan Pompei of the National Football Post, no-huddle snaps have more than doubled league-wide since 2008 -- from 7.1 percent of all offensive plays then, to 14.6 percent through the first four weeks of the 2012 season. The seemingly conservative Miami Dolphins have done it far more than any other team -- 61.8 percent of their offensive plays have come without a huddle, which makes sense when you have a rookie quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) who did it all the time in his high-octane college offense (Texas A&M's). Add in the fact that offensive coordinator Mike Sherman also called the plays for Tannehill as A&M's former head coach, and it ain't rocket science anymore.
The Baltimore Ravens are the only other team running no-huddle on more than half their offensive plays this year, per Pompei (54.2 percent of the time), which also resonates, because Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco ran a lot of no-huddle at Delaware. After the Dolphins and Ravens, Pompei lists the Denver Broncos (45.6 percent), New England Patriots (32.8 percent), Green Bay Packers (29.3 percent), Philadelphia Eagles (23.8 percent), Detroit Lions (20 percent), Kansas City Chiefs 19.8 percent), Pittsburgh Steelers (18.7 percent) and Atlanta Falcons (18.5 percent) as the teams using no-huddle the most.
The Indianapolis Colts, who only use the no-huddle four percent of the time, are averaging 15 yards per play when they do, as opposed to 7.3 yards per play when they don't. Sample-size alerts abound with information like that, but as Pompei points out, it's working for other teams:
Tony Romo's Cowboys (9.8 yards to 7.1), Peyton Manning's Broncos (7.9 yards to 6.2) and Aaron Rodgers' Packers (7.2 yards to 5.7).
Had the Tampa Bay Buccaneers zigged instead of zagging in their recent coaching search, we might see an entirely new level of no-huddle in the league. The Bucs went with Greg Schiano of Rutgers, but almost cut a deal with Chip Kelly, the mastermind behind Oregon's suffocating no-huddle system. There have been times in the NFL when such tactics were considered mere gimmickry, but in an era when more is expected of offense than ever before, and defenses are complex in ways prior generations couldn't possibly imagine, NFL teams are looking for every possible advantage.
The advantages are clear. One defensive coach told Pompei that he may use just 10-15 percent of his entire playbook when the opposing offenses steps up the pace, and it's estimated that defenses lose 10-15 seconds of recovery time without a huddle.
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, a defensive-minded man, recently said that the Kelly system could work very well in the NFL, and it's only a matter of time before that rocket takes off.
"What's happened is that the college game has changed so much that the quarterbacks and running backs [coming into the NFL] are so used to this style of football that they adapt to it very quickly and it's become transition-less for them. It's what they've been doing. That's why when they were talking about the head coach at Oregon going to Tampa Bay, I didn't think it was that farfetched because of the style and quality of athlete there is in this league now.
"This is a different style of league, different type of athlete, and it's played at a different pace. It's starting to be played more at that up-tempo pace that you see in college football. You see Baltimore starting to do it, Atlanta does some of it. So the game is changing and the league is changing and as coaches go, if you don't adapt and get an understanding and feel for what's going on, you're going to get left behind."
The first time I really became aware of the effect of the no-huddle in the modern game was during the Patriots' 20-16 Week 6 win over the Dallas Cowboys in 2011. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had a way of putting New England's offenses on a string with a dizzying array of defensive fronts -- Ryan would start games with two, one, or no down linemen, and move his players around in ways that made it much tougher for Brady (and other elite quarterbacks) to call protections and audibles.
As I wrote for Football Outsiders, Belichick's response was a clarion call to the rest of the NFL -- if you want to stop multiple defenses, force then away from the ability to sub out their personnel and make schematic adjustments. Make them play one base defense and shove your gameplan down their throats.
In the first quarter of that game, New England ran 12 plays and scored three points, with two sacks and an interception mixed in. Not one no-huddle play. In the second quarter, the Pats ran 20 plays and scored 10 points. No picks, no sacks. From the second play of the second quarter, every single play that didn't start a drive — every possible play that could be no-huddle — was.
You could see the change in Dallas' defense immediately. As soon as they realized that Brady was calling the offense and not just the protections from the line, that Cowboys kaleidoscope defense became much less colorful in a hurry. Through the drive that took up the first three minutes of the second quarter and ended in a field goal, you saw two down linemen, endbacker DeMarcus Ware standing up on the defensive right side, and a nickel base defense. Over and over. The Patriots did another smart thing —- they punctuated the hurry-up stuff with running plays, ensuring that the Cowboys knew they'd have to pay if their quicker adjustments led to any poor run fits or gap integrity mistakes.
You'll see this even more from the Patriots this year, because their run game is effective in ways it hasn't been since Corey Dillon was breaking tackles for Bill Belichick in 2004.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, also a run-first/defense above all coach, still sees the explosive advantages of the no-huddle.
"It's about controlling the tempo," Carroll told me last October, just before his team used the no-huddle to rack up 53 percent of their total yardage on 43 percent of their plays in an improbable road win against the New York Giants. "You get to call the plays you want to call, the formations you want to call, the way you want to do it and the time and all of that. The time it takes to get to the line of scrimmage and get them called. It's just about being on the attack. I think I've felt us being much more aggressive in the mode, but we're going in and we're not doing anything exclusive."
Clearly, no offense running the no-huddle is doing anything exclusive anymore. Nick Saban (a Belichick disciple, by the way) didn't get the memo, but it wouldn't be the first time that happened. And as with every other time, who cares? The trends will set the tone. Saban, by the way, may find that out if his Crimson Tide has to deal with Chip Kelly's offense in the BCS Championship game.
Maybe that's what he was thinking.
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